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‘Stop Destroying Our Communities For Coal We Cannot Use’

The Rhineland coalfields are Europe's biggest source of CO2. Photo credit: Ende Gelände

The Rhineland coalfields are Europe's biggest source of CO2. Photo credit: Ende Gelände

This article is based on a piece written by Emma Biermann for 350.org, an organisation building a global climate movement, and is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

In April, I joined over 6,000 people to create a human chain at the Garzweiler coal mine in western Germany’s Rhineland. We were united in our message to end coal reliance and accelerate the transition to renewable energy that should have begun yesterday.

The long-standing villages of Borschemich and Immerath, where the human chain went through, have gradually become ghost villages. Residents have been bought out and communities broken down by the German electric utility company RWE.

RWE is expanding the ninth largest coal mine in the world, despite debts, despite the destruction of homes and farmland, despite high levels of local pollution and radioactivity, and of course despite the fact we know this is coal we simply cannot keep burning if we want to limit catastrophic climate change.

Herr Schmitz, farmer from the village of Holzweiler, Germany. Photo credit: Emma Biermann

Herr Schmitz, farmer from the village of Holzweiler, Germany. Photo credit: Emma Biermann

I’m not even sure how we began talking. I think I asked him if the tractor over there was his. It was. It was pulling a trailer decorated with banners showing the boundary where people are calling for the mine to end.

We met amidst 5,998 or so other people trailing yellow ribbons standing amongst fields of crops that in two to three years time, as it stands, will no longer exist.  His village – the village of Holzweiler – was a backdrop to the solemn scene. He did not know yet whether his land too would be pulled up to dig the coal from beneath it.

Herr Schmitz, the farmer I met that day, told me the worst thing was not knowing. How do you plan or deal with a situation if you don’t know if in a few years time you and your family will be relocated? Moreover, how does that actually practically happen? How can you replace someone’s field and crops? How can you replace someone’s home, history, and livelihood?  He said, for him maybe it wasn’t so bad, but what about his son? What was he going to do?

If we close the mines, hundreds of jobs will be lost we are told. But here I hear stories of not just jobs being lost but also communities. And it’s done with dirty tactics. Herr Schmitz told me RWE comes into communities years in advance of the demolition taking place. When villagers were offered compensation for relocation, their initial reaction was resistance, as you can imagine. “But time softens them,” said Mr Schmitz. RWE begins to cut things down in the surrounding area, already destroying what they can access, making it feel like the work is already underway. Then some people take the offer. A few people begin to leave and local businesses begin to lose their customers. How can the baker stay open as the village slowly dissipates? Once the first few go, it has a domino effect.

He points to a building and tells me it used to be a hospital. Now it’s empty and boarded up. In this village a few residents remain in resistance, but there are no shops left, no church, or other local services. He tells me another four villages, hundreds of years old, are due to be demolished over the next 15 years. He takes me to the other side of his tractor to a banner which names those villages and those – like his – that are under question.

On 25th April, more than 6,000 people created a human chain against coal at the open-pit lignite mine Garzweiler in the Rhineland, Germany. Photo credit: Emma Biermann

On 25th April, more than 6,000 people created a human chain against coal at the open-pit lignite mine Garzweiler in the Rhineland, Germany. Photo credit: Emma Biermann

Mr Schmitz took part in his first human chain here almost exactly 30 years ago. He’s still resisting. It filled me with sadness talking to him, but maybe the seasons are changing and we are on the winning side.

RWE is in €31 billion of debt; the cost of coal is becoming increasingly expensive, not to mention when you add the external costs; limitations are being made on coal emissions and we’re realising to exactly what extent we can’t burn the black stuff (90% of coal reserves in Europe need to stay in the ground if we want to stay below 2 degrees warming). And well, there’s an ever growing movement ready to resist. This 14-16 August we will be climbing into a 400 metre-deep coal mine to stop the largest diggers on earth.

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